Our Frail Minds and the Horrors they Bring Home.
The Chronicle Herald
April 9, 2018
When Virginia Shaw heard of the recent murder-suicide in Springhill her mind flashed back to October 2013.
"There was a behaviour in him, almost like a pacing lion," remembered Shaw of her husband that day.
". . . I couldn't talk to him, couldn't look at him, couldn't negotiate. There was no life in his eyes - almost as if his soul was missing or gone."
There were many images that haunted Cpl. Shane Porter of the First Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders, from the 10 days in 1998 he spent "bagging and tagging" body parts collected along the shore after Swiss Air Flight 111 crashed near St. Margarets Bay.
In the months after he came home, he spoke to Shaw about them, the people he met and the child's foot that haunted him most.
"Then after about eight to 12 months he wouldn't talk anymore and he started to do some weird things around the house," said Shaw.
Late at night, they'd awake to the smoke detector going off because Porter was holding a lighter underneath it.
He had awakened to the smell of jet fuel and wanted his family to get outside.
Over the years that followed, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder slowly got worse until they finally exploded in their Pictou County home in 2013.
"As I heard about Lionel Desmond and now this family in Springhill, I can put myself in that place and time," said Shaw.
"Because I was there. He had become someone else, someone I didn't know before."
The things Cpl. Shane Porter saw along the shores of St. Margarets Bay had done something to his brain.
Or rather, to his mind.
One is the physical organ in all its barely understood electrochemical complexity.
The latter is the relationship of an individual with the world that makes them who they are - the way they think.
Both can be bafflingly fragile and resilient.
Shaw gets that.
But Nova Scotians who haven't experienced how trauma can change themselves and the people they love are straining to understand this province's second murder-suicide in as many years at the hands of a veteran.
On March 21, Master Cpl. Marc Poulin, who served three tours in Afghanistan, killed his partner Jennifer Lynn Semenec before setting their Springhill home alight and committing suicide.
Last January, it was Lionel Desmond, who suffered the same mental illness after serving in Afghanistan. He killed his wife, Deborah, 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah and his mother, Brenda, in their Upper Big Tracadie home before turning the gun on himself.
The other big question is why some experience the horrors of the battlefield as soldiers or the highway as first responders and go on to lead healthy lives while others don't.
We're not alone in wondering about that.
"We found you get these stark differences between people who have PTSD compared to people who have experienced trauma but never developed PTSD," said Dr. Ben Dunkley, a neuroscientist working at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
Dunkley has spent most of the past decade staring at the brains of people suffering from PTSD in an effort to see their minds.
The brain has regions that perform different roles as they work together to make us think.
The hippocampus is responsible for moving short-term memories into long-term storage. It works closely with the amygdala, home to emotion and the fight or flight response, to encode our emotional response to an experience.
The prefrontfal cortex, meanwhile, is home to the rational thought we like to think governs how we behave in the world.
It defines goals and social control and often wrestles with the amygdala over the steering wheel.
Using the neuroimaging technique dubbed magnetoencephalography, Dunkley is able watch neurons fire throughout the brain as he shows images to its owner.
"PTSD is not just a behavioral manifestation, it is a physical disorder," said Dunkley.
"We found that even when they are at rest, in soldiers with PTSD, they were highly over-connected, hyper-connected to other areas of the brain that deal with memory and emotional responses."
The research, commissioned by Defence Research and Development Canada in partnership with the Canadian Forces, showed the soldiers were in fight or flight all the time.
In a following study, Dunkley's team showed pictures with borders to two groups of soldiers - one who suffered from PTSD and one who had experienced traumatic events but didn't have PTSD.
Both groups were told to concentrate on the border and answer questions about it while ignoring the images of happy faces, angry faces, scenes from Afghanistan and words that could trigger emotional response.
"In these people who are resilient, maybe it is that they can return to a baseline of activity," said Dunkley.
"The hypothesis is that people with PTSD stay at this hyper-connected level and don't return."
Ultimately, Dunkley would like to learn whether resiliency can be determined before a soldier is sent to war. But that remains a long way off.
The work of Dunkley, Dr. Margot Taylor and Dr. Elizabeth Pang shows that over time a neural network develops in the prefrontal cortex, where rational thought usually occurs, that anticipates danger.
Like a river that has cut itself so deep that the water can no longer find a new course, the mind's flow of thoughts ends up trapped.
"They are locked in a world of memories and continual processing with no apparent means for escape," reads a summary from one of their studies.
"This would directly impact their ability to fully experience the stimuli of the environment affecting the quality of their lives. Over time, this inability to function in the social context could eventually erode other aspects of self-esteem and self-worth leading to anger, aggression, depression, and self-harm."
That explanation dovetails with Shaw's conclusions on what led to the final downward spiral in the man she loved.
"I think, or can only assume, that he lost hope," said Shaw.
"In himself, perhaps in his family, in any future of getting better or of being himself again. He would say ‘I'm not nomal, I'm not normal anymore'."
For all its wondrous ability to adapt and survive, even small changes can throw the brain off kilter, says Dunkley.
And for all the groundbreaking research the neuroimaging machine has allowed him to do, it too has its shortcomings.
"The (shortcoming of our technology) is that we will never be able match the internal experiences in a mental life with the macroscopic view that we see," Dunkley said.
The bird's-eye view the
neoroimaging device offers of the mind's highways can't show him what the person is actually thinking.
Cpl. Shane Porter was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder a year after the Swiss Air disaster and released on a medical discharge from the military.
He wasn't offered any treatment, according to Shaw, until 11 years later when she sought it for him.
PTSD didn't become a household name until Canadians started coming home from the war in Afghanistan in 2002.
It was a new diagnosis for a disease as old as human conflict.
The ancient Greeks wrote of strange behaviour in soldiers after conflict. Shellshock was the term used after the First World War.
By the time then Maj. Mark Gasparotto brought 23 Field Squadron home from Kandahar, everybody knew what PTSD was.
Suicides were in the news and Veterans Affairs was regularly getting raked over the coals of public opinion for not providing adequate mental health supports.
23 Field Squadron had been assembled out of army, navy and air force members attached to a core of combat engineers. When they got home, the soldiers were dispersed to their varied units.
"You trained as a unit, fought and operated as a unit but when we came home there was this dispersion," said Gasparotto, who retired in November as a colonel after serving one tour in Bosnia, two in Afghanistan and one in Haiti.
"I think some people struggled with that loss of identity. A loss of connection as a result of the way we generate our forces."
Shortly after getting home, one of his soldiers attempted suicide.
Members of the unit rallied around - some staying with the soldier 24-7.
It was exhausting for everyone.
Then there were other cases of self-harm and a reality had to be faced.
"Often the institution is blamed for not doing enough. Yes, there is a policy framework, but an institution is just made up of people," said Gasparotto.
"I felt overwhelmed and sometimes incapable of doing everything I wanted to do. Ultimately a utilitarian approach is required - you do the greatest good for the greatest number. Sometimes you can't do everything you want to do for every person. That was hard to come to grips with and hard to explain to people."
Meanwhile he also had to train a unit for combat.
His own children, wife and mental health didn't get the attention they deserved.
About a year after his return, it caught up with him. He had a verbal outburst at home.
He sought help and was speaking to a counsellor within 36 hours.
"When I needed help, I found it was there," said Gasparotto.
"I think the system has come tremendously far from where it once was . . . When you know the inside details of some of these stories, what plays out in the media is often very one-sided and doesn't portray the entire situation and all the details."
If Gasparotto were brought in for one of Dunkley's experiments he would probably be placed in the "resilient" group of soldiers - those who have suffered traumatic experiences but did not end up with PTSD
Where Dunkley's neuroimaging machine reaches it limits by not being able to show what the actual thought processes are, Gasparotto can fill in some blanks.
Because it's not that he isn't pained by what he experienced during almost 21 years in the military.
"I have vivid memories of the first time I pulled the trigger and killed someone," said Gasparotto.
"And the time I was blown up, feeling the shockwave travel through the vehicle and my body. It was so loud I didn't hear it. The time I evacuated a wounded soldier - the smell of cooked earth, gunpowder and burnt flesh. The taste of adrenaline from either fear or fight."
Those vivid memories stand in stark contrast to home.
To the sights and sounds of his daughters laughing and playing, his wife's touch, the smell and taste of home-cooked meals.
Both extremes he carries within him.
But that doesn't mean they are both always in his mind's eye.
Gasparotto's is not a daily struggle.
"What I have come to realize is that it is not about balance. Those things don't cancel each other out," said Gasparotto.
"For me, it's about holding those contradictions in tension. And I think people who struggle do so because they are trying to cancel things out. Often they will try to numb them through alcohol or drugs."
Like Dunkley, Gasparotto is also clear about his limitations.
He can't presume what is going through another veteran's mind - he can only share his own experience.
Those experiences he shares in his book, Clearing the Way: Combat Engineers in Kandahar.
A LONG DECLINE
Though Porter did start seeing a counsellor 11 years after his diagnoses, it didn't make a difference.
The home he shared with his wife and two daughters became filled with tension.
They kept a ‘communication book' on the kitchen table where members of the family could write the things that were too painful to say to one another.
"That helped some," said Shaw.
"I stayed with him because I loved him, had children with him and the hope that they could reverse the damage that had been done."
That fall day in 2013 didn't come out of the blue.
There was a long decline.
He had become paranoid - having installed four cameras around the outside of the house. He reviewed the footage daily.
He slept in short intervals and the rest of the family learned to be careful of his moods.
"But when my well-being and my safety and my children's safety came in danger, I had to make that call," said Shaw. "It's the hardest thing I have ever done and I live with that guilt every day."
He beat her up bad and threatened her life. She called the police and Porter was charged with assault and uttering threats.
He pled guilty and was ordered to stay away from the home for a year.
"When the individual is harming, they are in a very cold, dark place and I don't know what brings them to that place," said Shaw.
On July 28, 2014, one of her daughters drove out to Barneys River to check on her father. She found he had taken his own life.
"I do forgive him, because that wasn't him," said Shaw. "It was the disease. It was not the man I loved, it was something that overcame him."
Healing has been slow for her and the girls, who are now adults.
Shaw is a military veteran who now has also been diagnosed with PTSD because of what happened to her husband. She has become an informal counsellor for others.
"Being a military couple you form friendships with the people you served with," said Shaw.
"A handful of them are dealing with PTSD. I have family members that are dealing with it. I talk to their spouses about the things they are recognizing. The little red flags."